Getting slightly lost in an ambitious mosaic of edgy urban perspectives
Paul Larkin’s novel features a powerful depiction of Dublin’s north inner city, but many contradictions, anomalies and unanswered questions mean its potential is not fully realised
Éilis from the Flats By Paul Larkin
‘IDalkey Archive Press, 316pp, £10.50
s it not blindingly obvious that I’m suffering from civic grief?” Éilis, the 16-year-old mystic at the centre of Paul Larkin’s countercultural and confounding new novel, asks a psychoanalyst. She’s referencing Dostoevsky – like others in the book, she’s a fan – but she’s also giving voice to one of the novel’s recurring themes. Civic grief is pervasive among Larkin’s characters as they navigate their turbulent, overlapping worlds: Dublin’s gangland; a doomed complex of flats; a myopic public service television station.
Éilis from the Flats comprises an ambitious mosaic of perspectives: whistleblowers; bureaucrats; goths; powerful and small-time criminals; ordinary, well-intentioned people living in Dublin’s neglected north inner city. Some of these are more credible than others. The young protagonist – a faith healer and Gaeilgeoir as well as a seer – remains an enigma despite or because of the consistent emphasis on her beauty, intelligence, idealism and charisma.
Éilis is revered by her neighbours and friends. The parish priest calls her his grace child. Jimmy Heffernan – a sociopathic drug lord with guards as well as the crime correspondent for Empire Television in his pay – is obsessed with her. Initially he wants to marry her. Later he wants to destroy her, but not before making her the face of Connolly’s, his gimmicky nightclub decorated with Citizen Army prints and statues of the Easter Rising leaders.
Heffernan claims he’s gone straight but Éilis writes a manuscript – “presented as a story, in the third person” – exposing his murderous criminality. This document makes up part of the novel and is read by a young researcher at Empire and by his mentor, Tommy Baker, a veteran journalist and chronic alcoholic.
Larkin’s writing is at its most fluid when inside the heads of Jimmy and Tommy. A flawed man trying to indict the drug lord and fight his own urge to drink, Tommy is both familiar and distinctive.
Similarly, the scenes in Empire, where creativity and courage are threatened by officialdom and spinelessness, are among the novel’s most immediate and compelling.
Larkin has experience in public service broadcasting. Born in Salford and now living in Donegal, he’s a former journalist and film-maker who has worked in the BBC and RTÉ. He also spent five years in the Danish merchant navy. Since leaving journalism, he has had an impressive career as a translator.
His excellent 2018 translation of A Fortunate Man, by the Nobel Prize-winning Danish writer Henrik Pontoppidan, helped bring an important and strikingly current Nordic classic to an English-speaking audience. The novel was originally published serially between 1898 and 1904 and Larkin’s seamless, empathetic translation coincided with the release of a screen adaptation directed by Bille August.
In its descriptions of characters’s appearances and its omniscient point of view, Éilis from the Flats is reminiscent of a 19th-century novel. Its streams of consciousness are loosely modernist. The way it foregrounds its fictional status gives it a postmodern slant. But its experimental form sits uneasily alongside its romanticisation of Irishness and the Irish language, and its problematic portrayals of women.
Although the edgy urban setting is vividly evoked, although Éilis mentions Kate Tempest and the Occupy movement, although the scenes in Connolly’s and Empire could be happening right now, the devout Catholicism of several of the characters belongs to an Ireland of 30 or 40 years ago. No one questions the exceptionally close relationship between Éilis and the benign parish priest, who arranges a stint in the Donegal Gaeltacht for his grace child, drives her there himself and at one point lingers outside her bedroom door, sprinkling holy water and saying prayers.
Characters are described as having a “West of Ireland face,” the “black hair of the Armadas” – a goth, unfathomably, refers to Éilis’s “Celtic autism”. Some generalisations veer towards essentialism. The researcher’s girlfriend, who also works in Empire but unlike her male colleagues is never shown working or discussing work, references the “urge that women have to change them, to tame them”. Them meaning men.
Tommy Baker is scathing about Empire’s female employees: “pert, precocious, self-obsessed young women with skirts outrageously short at ten o’clock in a new day; feminists they claimed . . .”.
During a meeting, a secretary rhapsodises about Tommy, telling her boss, “we all just want to take him home, clean him up, and look after him”. We meaning women.
It reads like Tommy’s fantasy, but is it? It’s difficult to figure out which sections have been “written” by Éilis and if, in these sections, she’s recollecting or foretelling events. This lack of clarity weakens the novel, as does the overuse of direct address in dialogue. The characters constantly, unnecessarily, use each other’s names.
Éilis from the Flats encompasses some fine writing and powerful depictions of urban poverty and the damage of individualism and unchecked capitalism – its civic grief is heartfelt – but its many contradictions, anomalies and unanswered questions mean its potential is unrealised.